Niche-themed video channels are an emerging subject of study within journalism education programs, as instructors endeavor to prepare students to work in an ever-changing media landscape. Familiar legacy news organizations and consumer brands, including the New York Times and Starbucks, are embracing web video as a way to engage audiences, inspire social sharing, and bring compelling stories to life. Rather than limit instruction to studying existing channels, we challenged our students at the University of Oregon to create one.
We noted there are food channels, sports channels and animal channels. However, we could not identify a book channel of any significance. Given the role of books in our culture, the idea made sense. It also seemed like a natural fit for a university, and for our journalism school, given our collective commitment to expanding access to knowledge. Even people who don’t consider themselves avid readers recognize the influence of literature in their lives, from texts required in school to popular written works that make their way into film and television. Given the low barriers to entry that YouTube and other social media have, we were energized by the possibilities.
Fueled by enthusiasm and ambition, a dedicated class of undergraduates set out this past winter term to create Booklandia.tv. The original concept of launching a book channel came from a student previously enrolled in our media entrepreneurship class. Now in its third year, that course was informed by my participation in the Scripps-Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute, held annually at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School. Awarded fellows and their journalism schools commit to adding media business courses to their curricula and to creating incubators that foster innovation within their programs.
Our innovation incubator is Allen Hall Studios (AHS), named for Eric Allen, the first dean of our 100-year-old journalism school. AHS is a project-based course that meets weekly each term as a laboratory for experimentation. It is aligned with Eric Newton’s teaching hospital philosophy for best practices in journalism education. The course is capped at 25 students who must apply and be cleared to register. However, the only real prerequisites are passion and commitment. The course’s exploratory non-structure has resulted in several award-winning special projects, distributed through collaborations with a growing list of regional media and corporate partners.
We also viewed the channel as an opportunity to fulfill a societal need. According to several polls, the number of Americans who don’t read books has nearly tripled since 1978. Despite recent increases in eReader sales, Pew Research reported in 2014 that nearly a quarter of Americans had not read a single book during the previous year. Education level tends to be associated with the numbers of books read by Americans. Students with minimal college education read far more, on average, than men and women who only completed high school. Research suggests the reason may be that people who grow up reading are far more likely to go to college.
We set our sights on broadening the scope of the book channel project beyond our main campus in Eugene, Oregon. We were inspired when we learned that Portland, less than two hours away, was named the top city for book lovers in 2011 by livability.com. Having our school’s Agora Center for Journalism Innovation based there provided infrastructural support to bridge the distance.
Powell’s Books, acknowledged as the largest independent bookstore in the world, proved to be a natural partner. Their main store encompasses a full city block in Portland’s Pearl District, and it hosts top named authors nearly every night of the week. We negotiated a win-win agreement with Powell’s that includes access to their author events, cross promotion, and co-branding. We agreed to supply the Powell’s marketing team with an initial run of 5,000 Booklandia.tv bookmarks for point-of-sale and mail order distribution, and provide links to Powell’s on our website.
Early on, we established a few philosophical ground rules. We committed to creating a channel that maintained editorial autonomy and integrity. Our objective was not to sell books. Rather, we were out to promote reading and intellectual exploration.
Key to making the deal with Powell’s was support from our dean, Julie Newton, and from Chuck Williams, who heads UO’s Office of Innovation. Williams and his team are intentionally in place to support faculty and staff in navigating through obstacles that can be inherent in large institutions. They assisted us with domain registration, web hosting and drafting terms of service for the site.
UO’s adherence to the quarter system allowed us just 10 weeks to prepare for our April 6 launch date. Maya Lazaro is our project coordinator and mentors our students. We enlisted Tyler Rogers, one of our exceptionally talented students, to code and design the website. Within the class we established production, marketing and distribution teams. Students developed and prototyped several ideas for regular feature segments. They included novel person-on-the street interview features, like “What’s on your nightstand?” and “Judge a Book By Its Cover” under the segment “Book Smarts.” “Kid’s Corner” was conceived to include young people — from toddlers to high schoolers — musing about their favorite books. “Epilogue” is our regular feature on book-related news. And “The List” was fashioned after The Soup with Joel McHale
In addition to “Author Q&A” interview features, students developed a “Writers on Writers” segment. We also created “Book Banter,” a scripted animated segment that pairs historical literary figures engaged in humorous conversations, much like Jib Jab.
To leverage the power of social media, students conceived an Instagram campaign centered on having the public share “shelfies,” much like selfies that feature people pictured with their favorite books. By March, a short spring break and a feeling of nervous anticipation were what separated us from Booklandia.tv’s debut.
Over the break, several members of our team participated in a journalism excursion to Havana, Cuba, which provided opportunities for our cameras to tour a handcrafted book publisher’s establishment and to capture stories about the country’s high literacy rate.
Several campus area launch events marked our successful debut on Monday, April 6, including scavenger hunts, giveaways and contests.
Our students best speak to the value of immersive experiential learning. “Going from a simple idea to a full-blown web channel where people from all over can interact and see what we’ve done, all the countless hours we’ve spent to make sure that the content we produce is great, is amazing,” said Fahma Mohamed, a junior in the class.
“Booklandia gave me the confidence to talk to walk up to strangers and engage in conversation without knowing anything previously about them,” added Judy Holtz, a senior.
Our full vision for Booklandia.tv includes active participation from student media groups from other colleges and universities internationally, in the form of submitted content. We also welcome content from K-12 teachers and their students. We’ve created style guides and tutorials, available on our site, and are pursuing corporate sponsors and foundation grant funding.
With an eye toward facilitating an international dialogue about books and reading, our emerging distribution model encourages media outlets (newspapers, radio and television stations, and bloggers) to embed our content within their websites as a public service.
Ed Madison holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon (2012), where he is now an assistant professor. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and an Adobe Education Leader. Madison’s multifaceted career in media and journalism began as a high school intern at the Washington Post-owned CBS television affiliate in Washington, D.C. during the height of Watergate. At 22, he was recruited to become a founding producer for CNN. His own subsequent companies have provided services for most of the major networks and studios, including CBS, ABC, A&E, Paramount, Disney and Discovery. The Digital Skills Workshop project will be chronicled in more detail in his forthcoming book from Teachers College Press (Columbia University) on journalism, student engagement and the Common Core. Follow him @edmadison.